A Photo is Not a Living Person (Though Sometimes I Wish it Were)

I only have two photos of my deceased life mate/soul mate. It seems odd in this age of electronic imagery to have so few pictures, but there was no reason to take photos. We were almost always together. We remembered the things we did, the events we participated in, the conversations we had. A camera would have only been an intrusion in our lives.

One of the photos I have is fifteen years old, a formal photo of the two of us, taken at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration. After he died, his mother wanted a picture, so I took a photo of the picture, cropped me out, and sent it to her. That image of him sat in my computer for over a year without my looking at it. I simply could not bear the pictorial reminder that he was forever gone from this earth. (To be honest, I still cannot bear the thought of his being gone.) Even worse, it didn’t look like him, not the way he looked toward the end (though it had been a perfect likeness at one time), so I barely recognized him. I didn’t want to supplant what images I had of him in my mind with a photo.

About a year ago, however, my memories of him started to fade, and I desperately needed to see him, so I printed out the photo. Somehow, the photo makes him look happy and radiant, as if he were smiling at something only he knew. (Which is odd, because he does not look at all like that in the original photo.)

The other photo of him is from a few months before we died. (I can’t believe I made such a typo, but I’m leaving it in because in so many ways, “we” did die.) I’d just come back from a trip in a rental car, and since a rental car is a terrible thing to waste, we took a rutted and sparsely graveled road to the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. (Although we lived only twenty miles from there, neither of our old cars could safely make the trip.) I didn’t realize I had a photo of him until months after his death when I went through the pictures I took of the canyon. (By then, I often took photos — seeing life through the lens of a camera was the only way I could deal with his dying and then with his death.) He is standing at the rim of the Black Canyon, his back to me, staring out at . . . eternity? I was able to look at this photo occasionally, for some reason — maybe because I was able to “see” him the way I remembered him.

There is a third photo, one his oncologist took. I’d considered asking for it, but I remember how appalled my mate was when he saw it — he looked old and haggard and gray and very, very ill. I didn’t want to remember him as such, so I never followed through with my inclination.

A few months ago, I put away the photos. I went from not wanting to look at the pictures, to drawing comfort from them, to not wanting the constant reminder he was dead. But yesterday, I set the photos out again. I needed the feeling of connection, no matter how ephemeral. I don’t know how long it will be before I can’t stand to look at them again — perhaps only a day or two. As much as I need to feel connected to him (sometimes that lack of connection is like an itch deep inside), the truth is, a photo is not a living person, and I cannot feel connected to an image on a piece of paper.

5 Responses to “A Photo is Not a Living Person (Though Sometimes I Wish it Were)”

  1. Amrita Skye Blaine Says:

    This post deeply touched me, Pat. I’ve been going through this with the photos of a beloved Scottish deerhound that I lost suddenly this summer. I fully understand this is nothing like losing a life partner; nonetheless, it was a huge loss for me, and grief is grief. First I put her pictures as a slideshow for the wall paper on my computer; then I couldn’t bear seeing her beautiful healthy self. Now I have a picture of her when I turn on my phone. That seems to be all right.

  2. midwestmalts Says:

    I am very sorry for your loss. It is hard to lose someone so close to you. Am dealing with losing someone,in a very slow manner… it is hard to see piece by piece of them go, sometimes i look at photos i have of us together and it makes me happy to have, but i rather not see them. Rather not go to the past at this time.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Kate Says:

    I know what you’re going through. I don’t have many photos of my husband either, for exactly the reasons you mention. Now I take pictures of everyone, to the point of overdoing it, I guess. I cope by living with my camera in my hand…maybe it keeps me slightly apart and reduces my pain. I miss my husband more than words can really say. I can look at photos of him before “us” and handle that ok…it’s the more recent ones that rip my heart out again. I also struggle with needing the connection that death severed. I have no idea if/when it gets better, but maybe it helps to know that while on one hand we each are alone in our loss, we are not alone in our pain.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Kate, for the first eighteen months after his death, I took my camera everywhere. I could only look at the world through a camera — head on, it was just too painful.

      I don’t know when photos of them stop ripping our hearts out. Maybe never? Though, yesterday, for the first time in two and a half years, I smiled when I saw the photo.

      And such a wise way of putting it — it’s true, we are each alone in our loss, but we are not alone in our pain. This blog has taught me that — so much pain has been poured into these comments! I still don’t know how any of us survive this, but apparently we do.

      Take care of yourself.

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